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The Right Way Is the Safe Way

“Safety is as safety does,” goes the
slogan (is that from Forrest
Gump?) but what does one do to
promote safety as a smaller company
without the luxury of a big
budget and single hatted director
of safety? We asked a dozen smaller
contractors how they dealt with
safety issues and found that while
working safely might get old after
a while, it was also recognized that
so did those who practiced it.

“Safety’s fine if you got the time” is
not an approach that works, and
none of the contractors canvassed
had this point of view they were
all serious about the need to keep
safety front and center. Safety does
begin with the worker, as we often
hear (“Put safety in your head
when you get out of bed” is another useful slogan), but contractors know
they also need to remind employees of
safety, even if it is information the
employees essentially already know.

What’s It to You?

One contractor from Colorado says,
“My last employee started as an apprentice
12 years ago, so they all have a lot
of common sense and do not need to be
told a lot about safety They are grown
men and don’t need to have their hands
held. They know I expect the best from
them, and that’s what I get. In the 1950s
and 1960s people did things right, and
we all learned our technique and work
ethic from good role models. This
approach is possible in a small organization,
but for a large one, accountability
falls by the wayside when people
point fingers. In a small organization,
there are not enough people to point to.
If you have responsible people, this
approach is fine.”

An Arizonian agrees on the common
sense angle: “The challenge is getting
people to use common sense, as most
accidents that happen seem to be a violation
of common sense not paying

“This is not to say we don’t have accidents,”
continues the Colorado man,
because common sense can be overridden
by plain bloody mindedness: “Six
years ago, I told an employee not to put
a ladder on top of a piece of scaffolding
and then climb to the top of the ladder
and try to do an operation. He did
exactly that as soon as I left the site, and
the dynamics of the situation resulted in
the scaffold tipping over and him falling
and breaking his ankle. I had told him
not to do this based on common sense
and my own experience, as I had done
the same thing in earlier years and fallen
quite far, luckily without hurting
myself too badly (lending credence to
the saying “ladder safety has its ups and

“But drywallers are stubborn and don’t
like to be told what to do I know that
for a fact because I am one. His attitude
was, ‘What does he know?’ He was
embarrassed, of course, and it turned
out to be a worker’s comp claim, but he
only received 50 percent because he
admitted he had disobeyed my instructions.
When another employee did the
exact same thing after I had warned him,
I got plenty mad, because not only he
was hurt, but the whole crew packed up
and left for the day when we were trying
to get a job done.

“But overall, my guys are safety conscious,
from wearing goggles to alternating
jobs in order to use different
muscles and avoid repetitive motion
injuries. To avoid hanging wallboard
overhead all day, which can wreak havoc
with the body, I invested in a chain driven
battery powered panel lift, so they don’t have to use their shoulders. It definitely saves the
strain on a guy’s back, shoulder and neck when trying to push
board against a floor joist and hold it there long enough to drive in some tacks.

“Our program is a combination of
increasing awareness of what is on the
market to prevent injuries, and having
a good background in safety. I
read all the trade magazines, go to
conventions every other year, and
talk with people from other market
areas, as certain things are emphasized
in different market areas. We also work
on larger projects where we are required to
have weekly safety meetings, to be harnessed,
etc., and ensure we are OSHA compliant.

“The biggest challenge with regard to safety, however, is other
trades. There has been a degradation of conditions on job sites
of late, with general contractors allowing schedules to slide and
too many trades to work on a job at the same time, getting in
each other’s way. The added clutter and noise is distracting and
affects quality and morale adversely. When a saw is
screaming in your ear, it is hard to pay attention
to what you are doing. If you are using
a utility knife or power equipment, you
can injure yourself, or you may end up
breathing the dust or lacquer fumes from
other trades.

“They should post notices and let people
know ahead of time that the painters
will be spraying lacquer on Tuesday, so that
those who have respiratory problems or are
affected by the fumes do not come to work on that
day, and are not be penalized by investing time driving to and
from a job site and not having anything else scheduled for that
day. I’ve had one guy tell me, ‘Oh, you are drywall, you are supposed
to be dead by the time you are 50.’ That day, we left the
site because they were grinding concrete and the whole place
was full of talc, getting in our lungs and eyes and creating a poor
environment for our products. I can deal with the materials in
my own trade because I know what risks I am facing and can
take the appropriate precautions, but I can’t do that for the
byproducts of other trades so well.

“The problem is really GCs cramming through projects and not
putting enough competent superintendents on job sites, so there
is a weak chain of command, and guys are learning in the field
instead of knowing how to schedule and run a job. They are letting
the subs hammer out schedules. The problem snowballed
downhill during the late 1980s and the 1990s to the point where
schedules are out of whack at every job I go to. Carpet layers
are coming in before the walls have been painted, or painters
come in right after the drywall has been hung and before the
finishers can do their job.

“They built the Empire State Building in 14 months. Now it
takes three years to complete these 15,000 square foot trophy
homes we work on, and it is a battle every inch of the way. On
a personal level, we are getting older now, and it is nice not to
have to put up 20 rolls of tape or hang 100 sheets a day, like the
legends of old. But from the safety and production perspective,
this ‘protocolless’ operating basis is for the birds.”

It Pays to Be Safe

As for other approaches to safety training, the Arizonian includes
“safety topics with the pay checks. To receive their pay, employees
have to sign off on reading them, including filling in what
the topic of the piece was, so they have to read enough of it to

In Washington, a contractor’s bookkeeper handles safety: “We
have a safety manual of materials sent by various associations,
including AWCI. When a new employee arrives, I show them
videos we received from OSHA, as well as reading and signing
off on the safety manual.”
A Floridian reports they “hold monthly safety meetings, and
most of the time, GCs on bigger jobs hold weekly meetings. I’m
cheap, so they are just quick talks. I don’t want to spend time
showing videos at drywall rates. It might seem strange to have
to tell them to wear goggles, but these are construction workers, and they need to be reminded every
day. In the past three years, we have only
had one small accident, but I still pay
lots of worker’s comp.”

In Indiana, a contractor with 35 employees
says, “Most employees received a 10 hour OSHA training course when they
come up to their carpenter apprenticeship. In addition, we have an in house safety training program and supervisors
provide weekly 15-minute long job site toolbox talks.
We also work in conjunction with our local unions and have an
incentive program, too. Every six
months, those who have not had a work
comp claim are entered into a drawing
for prizes and cash. Last week, we gave
away a $500 shotgun. It’s effective, too:
In the last year, we have only had one – claim for a bee sting.

Toolbox talks were a common item for
most contractors questioned, and some
had their employees attend safety meetings
put on by insurance industry people
or suppliers. Such a program resulted
in a 75 percent drop in accidents for
a Michigan contractor.

A North Carolinian also uses toolbox
training periods to update employees on
the most current items on the market, as
well as changes in rules and regulations.
They also work with the state OSHA,
are also members of the local safety and
health council, and attend training classes
and safety congresses.

“What works for many people is the 30 hour OSHA training, the construction
outreach training program that certifies
someone to teach our employees,” he
says. “Safety has been improving industry
wide, and it is because GCs are more
safety conscious and pass it down to
their subs. For me, what’s driving it is
making sure nobody is hurt. Generally,
it is insurance rates and bids driving the
improvement—GCs requiring and
being more observant of safety practices
than they used to be, and so ensuring
those subs they take on have their own
safety programs in place.”

Obviously, safety isn’t just a matter of
imparting information. It also takes
hard-cash investment in equipment.
One Minnesota contractor with less
than a dozen employees, most of whom
had been with the company for three
decades, invested $80,000 in a new scaffold
to ensure safety. “We always make sure we have good, OSHA approved,
laminated planks,” says the boss.

“We stressed safety in our company long
before it became mainstream,” says a
New Yorker employing between five and
25 staff “It really comes down to dollars.
OSHA is a minimum with our safety
program, as the blue chip companies we
deal with take safety to the nth degree.
We utilize a written PBCA safety program
as a framework and update it as we
go. We send superintendents and foremen
to the Building Construction Institute
in New York City for classes in all
the angles on safety. We also have a
weekly toolbox talk that goes with the
paychecks. Employees have to sign off
on it to collect their pay.

“I am union, so the people I hire are
supposedly qualified and trained by the
union. But when I hire people, I give
them a package that is an inch thick,
which includes our safety program, and
they have to sign off that they received
the program. It is really up to me to
enforce safety as an employer and set the
standards. And my biggest challenge is
getting the old workers to conform, to
wear safety glasses, hard hats and respirators
when they should. I can’t fire good
people, so I stay on them. Sometimes it
is a knockdown, drag-out fight and
when I walk off the site, they no doubt
take off the gear again. I also appeal to
their better sense, that they can’t afford
to harm their family by being injured.

“I am also onto them because workers’
compensation rates are so high. Any
claim zooms the rates even higher. We
just got over the ‘inquisition’ by workers’
comp after an employee died a couple
of years ago—he went out to his car
at lunchtime and died of what turned
out to be an embolism, of natural causes. It was not job related. But the insurance
company gave us a surcharge for
three years because the mans heirs took
us to court over this death, saying the
man was exposed to fireproofing, paint
and other materials. We passed the
OSHA investigation, but we are still
being sued in civil court because in New
York, you cannot sue your employer, but
you can sue who the employer was
working for, who in turn can sue the
employer a third party lawsuit.

“These are really the biggest problems
for employers when injuries occur on
the job: Workers’ comp rates increase and you are subject to third party lawsuits.
And when someone does get hurt
in a smaller company, it means a large
percentage of the work force is out of

The Big Boys

Lastly, to have a comparison, we asked
the safety director of a Pennsylvania contracting
company grossing $100 million
and employing 500 people, how the big
boys do safety Apart from his own
salary, the company spends $50,000 a
year on training about $100 per person,
which is not that high a figure.

“We have a full blown program,” the
director explains, “with new hire orientations.
We run 10- and 30-hour construction
safety courses. We do weekly
tool boxes, of course, which is bare minimum.
We do on-site job-specific training,
job-safety analysis training, everything
from A to Z. Sprains and strains
are our biggest problems, but we always
work in pairs, so everyone has a partner
to help with lifting, etc. We run six monthly
incentive programs giving
away shirts, jackets and gift certificates
for every working employee. This
increases awareness, which is what the
program is all about. I am also a member
of many safety councils in this region
and an authorized trainer for OSHA.

“A for smaller companies, I’d say the best
safety tool is training and education. The
excuse of not knowing what’s right and
wrong is no longer acceptable. That’s
what I have heard before from 10 man,
owner/operator businesses. They don’t
know the OSHA regulations, yet they
hire accountants to keep their books, so
why not consultants for their safety
issues? It would keep them out of lawsuits
and litigation over injuries.”

What’s Behind These Accidents?

Obviously, nobody decides while climbing
into their truck on the way to work
that they will injure themselves that day,
but about 17 workers actually wind up
dying on the job site each day in the
United States. Why?

We have pat answers such as stress,
rushed and cluttered workplaces, some
people are accidents waiting to happen
(see the Cooler Chat sidebar), but there
are certain factors that underlie these.

The simplest is the employee does not
understand something about safety or
the tools or procedures of their job, or
something else about the job site or
industry. For instance, what does the
word “safety” mean? You can talk about
safety at someone for years, but how useful
is that if his actual, working definition
of “safety” is based on the idea that
safety is for wimps an idea he got as a
child when he saw a younger boy floundering
down the sidewalk with training
wheels on his bike. Mention “safety” and
he switches off, even if he is sitting in
front of you at the toolbox talk, each
word going in one ear and out the other,
while he dreams about the big new
tires he is going to get for his monster
truck at the weekend.

The other, key reason is the person is
connected to somebody who gives him
a hard time, constantly makes less of
him, his efforts, his possessions, his
looks, his products, his truck, etc. Such
a person ends up being an accident waiting
to happen, and until he spots and
disconnects from that person (whether
it is gramps, mum, dad, bro, wife,
neighbor, “best friend” or the local sheriff),
he will continue to fail in life. It’s
worth thinking about when you have
someone who is accident prone.

Otherwise, the message that seems to be
coming across from the contractors surveyed
is that safety is alive and well in the
minds of most employees, and that the
right way of doing something is the safe
way. Amen to that.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a freelance writer based
in Clear-water, Fla.

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